I had one of those childhoods that Kodak commercials are made of: Christmas carols, lemonade stands, cherry picking excursions, and U-Haul box fortresses. Home schooled until I was fourteen, I confided in my mother like she was my best friend forever, and I read Tolstoy like he was Judy Blume. My dearest friends were three little girls named Katie, Ellen, and Mae, whom I brought to life on the pages of a small fabric-covered blank book. My enemies were Sartre, for I found him difficult, and time… for I didn’t see him coming.

I’m not sure when I grew up, really, but it happened early. When other kids my age were playing with Barbies, I was reading War And Peace and playing music on the street corner for change. The way I saw it, being a kid was for, well, kids… and I couldn’t allow myself to be just another kid. So I became a grown up, at least in my mind, and I spent my time learning about grown up things instead of goofing off.

I studied modern art because I wanted to be sophisticated, and soon turned to oil painting after Mondrian’s “Horizontal Tree” inspired me. I studied the Constitution, wrote letters to my Congressmen, and served as the Oregon Ambassador to Girls State, where I introduced ballots to legislature and fought to protect freedom of speech on the internet. I read the dictionary religiously, and studied Latin, French, and Italian before inventing my own language called Baliec, which I taught to the girls in my home school group, complete with noun declensions and verb conjugations. I adopted entomology as a hobby, and was soon making presentations to national Congress as a science and technology delegate from my home state of Oregon. And then there were the piano competitions that I never allowed myself to lose. They really made me feel like I knew what I was doing with my life. Internally motivated and highly disciplined, I already considered myself a grown up when my cat died, so I was able to keep my cool and I told myself everything would be fine. But then my grandpa died. And my father died.

Thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump…

I remember one very hot summer day a long time ago, climbing out of the pool and feeling the rivulets of water slide down my back and puddle at my ankles; walking across the prickly dried grass to a backyard bench upholstered in day-glo orange vinyl, cracked and whitened under the heaviness of the summer’s heat. And I remember watching the heat ebb off the bench in waves, and the feeling of my burning skin as I pressed my dripping body against the radiating plastic. Searing. Hissing. Four heart beats of hot plastic pain. And then… warmth. Warmth that filled me. And I remember lying there blissfully on that heating-pad bench, thinking vaguely to myself that it must be forgivable, even prudent, to suffer four short heart beats of pain if, eventually, I found my fulfillment.

I was twelve years old.

And it was with that in mind that I approached the breadth of my childhood, spending every day the way most college students spend nights before midterms: cramming. Strictly forbidden to watch TV or listen to non-classical music, I sat in my bedroom and wrote short stories, two novels, a chamber symphony, and a hundred-or-so page thesis on something I called “cyclical time” — because those are more than the Porsches and boyfriends and Givenchy handbags of the home school world, more than the spoils of being rich. Those were my heart beats, my one-way first-class ticket to whatever was bigger and better and more beautiful than living in a little brown house, wearing skirts from Goodwill, and eating chicken noodle soup on a shoe salesman budget. I planned to ride my creative mind to the new frontier of that dream world I had never known… complete with Versace boots, couture dresses, a sophisticated palette, and an I-banking knight in shining armor.

And passion rested heavily in the projection of myself into all things academic, although it was tinged with an eerie yellow obsession that drove me never to sleep or eat or learn who I was autonomously of what I could read or translate or derive.

But in spite of my discipline, I was never a concrete-sequentialist, not even at twelve. And I played Schubert because I could feel him, not because I could analyze him; and I painted melodic poetry and composed sugary landscapes, and I didn’t use a ruler when I designed the blueprints for the castle I planned to build someday in the top of a giant eucalyptus tree.

I renamed myself Alexia, then Alexis, then Astrid. I prayed each night for God to send me the little furry creatures from Dr. Seuss’ Sleep Book for friends. I dwelled on those daydreams of my knight in shining armor while I took pink bubble baths… but all the while, I prepared.

I left the home school living room for the Catholic school classroom when I was fourteen, and left Catholic school for public school two years later. I took every available AP class from English to physics, resurrected the school newspaper, and reigned for four years as the untouchable speech and debate comedy champion with my ever-so-slightly edited version of Arthur Miller’s Creation of the World and Other Business. When the college acceptance letters arrived in my mailbox, I received the news I had been waiting for my whole life: there would be no more $1 a week allowances and frozen lasagna dinners for me; I would be going to college on a full scholarship, entering the world of darling best friends, self-discovery, and knights in shining armor… the hissing and steam from the orange vinyl bench were melting away into a voluptuous pulsing warmth.

But even then, little in my world changed: the college curricula was certainly both of interest to me and a challenge, but the rhythm was the same… that perpetual whirring in the back of my eye sockets like an antique spinning wheel desperately in need of greasing. The self-discovery had to be put on hold to make room for the sanctity of professors’ opinions, and darling best friends are a trifle difficult to come by when one doesn’t even know one’s self. And the knight in shining armor? Well, I didn’t find him in college. I was hit a few times, though… and other things.

Thu-thump, thu-thump… heart beats.

And I sit here at this very moment feeling my pulse thud in my chest — ninety degrees of satisfaction for every heart beat of misery — and I realize that things have come full circle.

You see, I had one of those childhoods that Kodak commercials are made of: Christmas carols, lemonade stands, cherry-picking excursions, and U-Haul box fortresses. But for some reason I didn’t think it was good enough, and I sat on the bench and I waited. And Sartre, my enemy, danced pornographically before me; enchanting and feverish, he seduced me with the sweat of his knowledge, while time, ever inconspicuous, crept by me unnoticed. And my dearest friends, Katie, Ellen, and Mae, whom I brought to life on the pages of a small fabric-covered blank book, never grew up, because writing about “cyclical time” seemed more important to me than living in the moment through friends I had dreamt up after dinner.

We should all spend more time dreaming after dinner.

We work with diligence and plan with precision, we devise, we strategize, we sear our flesh on orange vinyl benches. And we wake up one morning only to realize that we’re old and tired and worn out, and we’ve worked our whole lives to retire in bliss, feeling like this.

Thu-thump, thu-thump, thu-thump…

We should never forget when and why we had to grow up. It’s easy for me to say my time came early on, because ever since I was little, I tried so hard to be grown up, and smart, and sophisticated. But if I really get honest with myself, I was only acting grown up. After all, how can one grow up when she has never allowed herself to be young? But Sartre’s nakedness no longer bewitches me… and now it’s my time.

So when you see me, twenty-one years old, dancing like a madwoman in torrents of rain or smeared head-to-toe with body glitter under the strobe lights of no-rave-in-particular, don’t make the mistake of judging me. Because each instance of regret and every infinitesimal moment of joy we experience should be eternally still-framed in our minds like a hyper-real 3D View Master slide. Because a priori rumination and third-person shadow-chasing are the just desserts of those who fail to teach themselves who they really are. Life is beautiful. Breathe it. Digest it. Become drunk with it.

Today is my day to live like a child.